Monday, 13 June 2011

Sourdough bread: cooking doesn't get more satisfying than this

I've been a keen cook for longer than I care to admit, as I started baking cakes on Sunday afternoons from the age of about seven. Personally, I've always found it very satisfying. I guess it taps into something quite profound. We eat to live, so I strongly believe that cooking is an important life skill; I also consider it an expression of love. It is also a wonderful way to unwind after a stressful day. When I hear people blithely admit to not being able to cook, I feel they are missing out on one of life's great pleasures. There is something soulful and primal about cooking and I like to think it helps foster a healthy relationship with food.

Since I started regularly baking bread earlier this year, my satisfaction levels have reached new heights. And, for me, baking sourdough bread is the most profoundly satisfying cooking imaginable. Creating your own starter is exciting enough, but there is something startlingly satisfying about making such a fundamental foodstuff. You can't believe that you have created such a wondrous thing! And merely from flour, water and salt. The fact that it makes you feel like a magician is probably a sad reflection of our modern food buying habits and the industrialisation of food.

Here is how I bake a sourdough loaf. They all come out a bit different as, sometimes, I don't let them prove sufficiently, but I'm working on my patience. A sourdough loaf takes about a day – but please don't be put off by this. There isn't much work involved, just the initial mixing together and the odd light knead, but, as you are using natural yeasts, time is the key factor as they take much longer to ferment or rise than commercial yeasts. This is why sourdough bread tastes so much better.

Sourdough bread (based on 'white leaven bread' from The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard)

200g white leaven at 18°C
325g cold water at 16°C
500g strong white flour
1 and a half teaspoons good sea salt crushed in a pestle and mortar
vegetable oil
semolina for dusting the baking tray

You will also need a clean, damp tea towel, a second clean tea towel, a large baking tray, a craft knife or Stanley knife, a small water spray bottle.
Optional, but helpful: a scraper, a flour dredger, a basket for proving the dough.

1. Before you start it's worth preparing a surface in your kitchen as your dedicated 'kneading surface'.

2. In a large bowl weigh out and mix together the ingredients, except the oil and semolina. This is best done with your right hand (if you're right-handed), squeezing it through your fingers to get rid of any lumps of flour. Use your left hand to scrape the dough off your right hand as the dough is very sticky. Cover the bowl with the damp cloth and leave for 10 minutes. Wash your hands.

3. Remove the dough from the bowl and place on your lightly floured 'kneading surface'. I keep my flour dredger handy to prevent the dough from getting too sticky to move around. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds (about 12 quarter turns). Try to keep the dough as sticky as you can bear, otherwise it will end up more dense and less likely to have the distinctive open, bubbly texture. Shape into a ball and leave covered on the surface while you clean out the bowl and lightly oil it.

4. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, place in the bowl and leave covered for 10 minutes.

5. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 30 minutes. (The proving periods gradually get longer and you can get on with other things in the meantime.)

6. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 1 hour.

7. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 1 hour.

8. Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl and leave covered for 2 hours.

9. Prepare your dry clean cloth by rubbing generous amounts of flour into one side of it. You'll need plenty of flour to stop the dough from sticking. Floured side up, use it to line a bowl or, ideally, a proving basket (I use a cheap plastic one with a 30cm diameter – see below). Knead the dough for 10–15 seconds, shape into a ball and, seam side upwards place into the cloth-lined bowl or basket. Either fold the cloth over the dough or cover it with your damp cloth and leave for 5 hours or for as long it takes to almost double in height. This obviously depends on the weather and how warm it is in your kitchen.

10. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7. Dust the baking tray with semolina. Upturn your loaf onto the tray. With the craft knife, cut a four line grid shape or a circle into the surface of the loaf. Before putting it in the oven, spray the surface with water. Be generous with the water and also spray into the oven. The moisture helps the loaf to rise.

11. Bake the loaf for about 45–50 minutes. Check to see whether is has cooked by knocking on the bottom – it should sound hollow. Allow to cool on a wire rack. As this makes a large loaf, it's worth cutting it in two, wrapping one half in plenty of clingfilm and freezing it for another time. I do like to prolong the satisfaction!

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